By Conor McNally
It seems odd that Rockstar Games would choose to announce that Red Dead Redemption would be getting a sequel in the autumn of 2017.
It’s not surprising that the hugely popular game would be getting a sequel. The original game’s way of allowing players explore the Wild West and experience all the period-appropriate violence and depravity therein, and the narrative based upon a series of choices a player makes based on their own moral code was an undoubted triumph.
The announcement is surprising because Red Dead Redemption already has a sequel. It’s not a game. It’s a television show that airs on Wednesday nights on Sky Atlantic called Westworld.
Westworld is a Western-styled theme park where guests pay $40,000 dollars a day to visit. The reason for such a hefty price tag: the inhabitants of Westworld are humanoid robots (called ‘hosts’ in the show) designed and programmed to be so lifelike they are indistinguishable from the human guests. The park and its robotic workforce are managed by a group of scientists and bureaucrats based in a remote centre with a design aesthetic that’s half Star Trek and half Bang and Olufsen.
One of the main tasks for those running Westworld is to design stories for the guests to take part in. Usually based on tropes from classic Westerns, these stories use the advanced capabilities of the hosts to guide guests in hunts for dangerous outlaws or missions to rescue the damsel in distress, the guests safe in the knowledge that although they can kill or maim their robot hosts, they themselves can’t be harmed.
You might think the opportunity to star in your Western might be enticement enough for the potential guests but that thinking belies a certain naiveté of the human condition, I’m sorry to say. The brothel is the place to be in Westworld. Guests come to escape their lives in civilised reality and live out their fantasies; and if the show is to be believed a lot of these fantasies start and end in the Sweetwater saloon and brothel. Westworld offers guest’s unparalleled possibility for narrative immersion but also freedom to indulge in activities that would be frowned upon in the guest’s civilised reality. The show is at its best when it plays with the dichotomy between these two choices.
Westworld is a show that posits questions and encourages viewers to interact (usually on Reddit) and theorise answers to try and ‘crack’ the show. The show is self-aware and knows that by asking big questions and leaving clues it presents itself as a puzzle that can be solved, an appealing prospect to great swathes of the internet for
who television isn’t something you passively enjoy on a Sunday night anymore but something to take part in. Whether or not this much audience participation is a good development for culture as a whole is beside the point; Westworld understands that it’s happening and wants to play the game on its own terms rather than those of the internet.
The show falls down when it tries to be normal television with real people and character arcs and instead ends up being a pale imitation of prestige television like The Sopranos. The show was co-created by Jonathan Nolan and it shares many of the same faults of the films made by his more famous brother Christopher; humour is sparse and forced, and any emotional, or god help us, romantic scenes, seem to be directed by an alien who learned the definition of love from an encyclopaedia. Nolan should stick to the sci-fi, and to his and the show’s credit he mostly does.